France is falling behind in its plans to return the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors to full power this winter after a rash of outages, raising fears that one of Europe’s key sources of electricity won’t be ramped up to counter Russia’s squeeze on the continent’s energy supplies.
Twenty-six of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are offline for maintenance or because of corrosion on piping that cools the reactor cores. Fixing the corrosion is taking longer than expected at several reactors, delaying their restart by as much as six weeks, according to regulatory filings and a French nuclear executive familiar with the matter.
EDF, the world’s largest owner of nuclear plants, is one of Western Europe’s most important power companies. Its fleet of reactors normally exports large quantities of low-cost nuclear power to neighboring countries, helping stabilize prices across the region. An EDF spokeswoman declined to comment on delays to the restart of the French reactors.
The corrosion problem is at the origin of the series of EDF outages this year. A technician discovered the problem late last year at Civaux, France’s youngest nuclear-power plant. The phenomenon, known as stress corrosion, was identified on welds for pipes that are under high pressure near the reactor core, according to France’s Nuclear Safety Authority. Engineers inspected the same section of piping in other reactors and found similar problems. The issue prompted EDF to accelerate maintenance and refueling of other reactors to ensure that they could be available this winter, given that the availability of the reactors where corrosion was suspected was in doubt.
French nuclear experts have said EDF’s calendar for repairing the reactors is ambitious given the difficulty of the work. Repairs on the corroded pipes must be performed within the radioactive containment area of the plants, limiting the time that welders can spend on the job because of rules limiting their radiation exposure.
Officials believe the corrosion is the result of changes that France made to a reactor design by U.S. company Westinghouse Electric Co. that is the basis for a number of French reactors. The design also underpins the U.K.’s Sizewell B reactor, which is owned by EDF’s British subsidiary, EDF Energy.
The outages have forced EDF to absorb huge losses because the company was forced to buy replacement power on Europe’s wholesale market, where prices have soared, for sale to retail clients at much lower prices. Last month, the company said the outages would hit pretax earnings this year by around $29 billion. That comes on top of more than $10 billion in losses the company is likely to book because of the French government’s decision to cap retail electricity prices.
The government of President Emmanuel Macron said in July that it would buy the 16% of EDF that the state didn’t already own, at a cost of nearly $10 billion.